Vedad Ibisevic graduated from Roosevelt High School. That should qualify him, if not define him, as being from St. Louis.
Apparently, for some, that is not enough.
One could argue—if one is into useless sports arguments, as many are—that Ibisevic is the best soccer player ever to come from St. Louis. He is clearly the best goal scorer from St. Louis to make his mark in world-class soccer. No one else is even close. What other player from St. Louis ever scored 80 career goals in Germany’s top league, the Bundesliga?
Immediately some soccer hounds will object to claiming him as being “from St. Louis.” Ibisevic didn’t come to St. Louis, and the United States, until he was 16. But he did much more than change planes at Lambert; he spent formative years here. He played soccer for the Roosevelt Rough Riders and played club soccer in the suburbs. He went to Saint Louis University, where he set the scoring record for a freshman with 18 goals.
When he moved to St. Louis in 2000, after his family fled Bosnia by way of Switzerland, he and his parents first lived in an apartment on Gravois in the city. His parents currently live in South County, not far from his sister and her husband, a policeman. Ibisevic recently visited them, during a break from play for the Bosnia-Herzegovina national team, which has a friendly match against the U.S. national team on August 14 in Sarajevo.
Ibisevic was a rose among a thorny Public High League, which is traditionally short on resources, support, and student interest. After his first year at SLU, he left college to sign a professional contract to play in Europe. Since then, his trajectory has been steep and upward, save for a calamitous knee injury.
After signing with Paris Saint-Germain in 2004, he stayed in France the following year to play for FCO Dijon. Ibesivic hit his stride at his next stop, Hoffenheim, where in his second year, the team was promoted to the Bundesliga, Germany’s top division. In 2008, he scored 18 goals in the team’s first 17 games, a pace that if maintained would have broken the league record of 40 goals in one season, set by the legendary Gerd Muller, known as “Der Bomber.”
During that early run, Muller anointed Ibisevic as a natural striker. “It’s rare to find a striker born with an instinct to score,” Muller said of Ibisevic. “You’re either born with it or not. You can’t learn things like that even if you train 24/7.”
His bid to break Muller’s record ended with a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee—the dreaded ACL tear—that knocked him off the pitch for a year.
It took him a bit of time to return to form, but this past season he scored 15 goals for Stuttgart, and overall, he’s scored 68 goals in Bundesliga play, and an additional 12 goals in German and Europa cup play. In the qualifying round for the 2014 World Cup, he has the second most goals for the Bosnia-Herzovegina national team, having scored seven. Edzin Dzeko, who plays for Manchester City and was in St. Louis for the recent match against Chelsea, leads the team with nine.
Bosnia-Herzegovina sits atop its World Cup qualifying group, three points ahead of Greece. It is ranked 14th in the world by FIFA, the international soccer authority. The U.S. team is ranked 22nd.
A casual, or even a diligent, observer of local media would not know much about Ibisevic. The Post-Dispatch sports section has mentioned him eight times in the last six years, with each merely a sentence or two reference, buried in a Bernie Bits column or some other cursory treatment of soccer. This is not surprising to local soccer followers, who are accustomed to the Post’s lethargic and shallow coverage of the sport, which rarely extends beyond routine coverage of SLU or a perfunctory phone call to Bill McDermott when an international match comes to town.
(Yes, for this piece, we too called “Mr. Soccer.” His take: “He’s not considered to be a totally local guy, but he should be. He carries the banner of St. Louis everywhere he goes. I consider him a St. Louisan. He was the best offensive player on the field every time he took the field for Saint Louis U.”)
The 70,000 or so Bosnians in St. Louis are used to the lack of notice. Ron Klutho, a veteran social worker in the Bosnian community who describes Ibisevic as a “nice kid,” adds that Bosnians look elsewhere for soccer news. “They know soccer is not big here. I don’t think they think of it as any snub against him,” Klutho says. “They don’t even, frankly, read the Post. They read the Bosnian media and go online.”
As for why the St. Louis media and its consumers aren’t keen on Ibisevic’s career, one soccer aficionado thinks it has to do with an aversion to strangers, whatever their origins. “I don’t think it’s xenophobia; it’s more like anywhere-but-St.-Louis phobia. I don’t think it matters if it’s Bosnia or Texas,” the soccer insider said, preferring to remain anonymous so as not to annoy the locals.
Xenophobia may sound harsh, but many older residents recall that SLU’s record 10 NCAA championship titles ended in 1973 in part because other college teams started to recruit “foreign” players. Demographically speaking, 69 percent of St. Louis residents were born in either Missouri or Illinois, and in a survey of 34 cities, that ranked St. Louis as the second highest for “native” residents in those metro areas.
Whatever the reason for the media and general public ignorance of Ibisevic, the true soccer intelligentsia knew what a genius striker he was. Pat McBride, who played on national championship teams at SLU before going pro in the North American Soccer League, remembers him from his one year at McBride’s alma mater.
“With Vedad, during his year at Saint Louis U., he just kept coming and coming and coming,” McBride recalls. “By the end of the year, you knew that Dan Donigan and Mike Sorber, the coaches, would have a hard time keeping him from going pro.”
The coaches, and the team, learned to adjust to this special talent.
“It took the coaches a while, because sometimes we’re so team-oriented, and that’s all well and good, but shit, if you got a goal-scorer, and he was one, that’s what the coaches finally figured out,” McBride says. “They were challenging him, putting pressure on him. They could see just how really good he was.
“There was a point during that season where it might have been perceived that he was being selfish. They finally realized, he’s a goal scorer. He’s going to go to the goal.”
McBride recruited Bosnian high school players when he coached at Forest Park Community College. He had success with players from Affton, Soldan, and Roosevelt high schools. He said they were good kids, and matched up with anyone on tactics, ball skills, and physicality. One rap sometimes, for lack of a better word, was “temperament.” Even Ibisevic, in his final game for SLU, a 4-2 loss to Maryland in the NCAA quarterfinals in 2004, got a red card and was ejected in the last few minutes of the game.
Tom Michler agrees that the Bosnian style of play can be “physical.” Michler is the founder and head of New Dimensions, a local non-profit that organizes low-cost soccer leagues for refugee, immigrant, and underserved urban youth.
“One thing I’ve noticed about their style of play is that it is physical. It’s not necessarily dirty, but tough and very gritty. We’re not used to that style of play,” Michler says. The Bosnian assimilation into St. Louis soccer has been “slow,” according to Michler, but he says it is tough for any immigrant kid, or poor kid, in the city.
“The challenge for many city kids is to have a chance to play. So many people now believe that the best soccer in St. Louis can only be played in West County, yet we see some wonderfully talented kids. Soccer in St. Louis used to be a poor man’s sport, now it’s a rich man’s sport, and that’s unfortunate, especially at the youngest ages,” Michler says.
The biggest obstacle for young immigrant and poor kids in the city is transportation to games and practices, not to mention fees that might be needed in “pay to play” leagues, often in distant suburbs. Parents have other concerns, like housing and employment, so their children playing sports takes a back seat.
As for “Vedo,” as he is called by his fans, local soccer lovers will have plenty of chances to watch him in the upcoming months. They can see him on Aug. 14 in the Bosnia-USA match, and in upcoming World Cup games, and wonder what it would have been like if the U.S. national team had hooked up with him at SLU instead of him playing in Europe.
“There never really was any attempt made by St. Louis soccer people to fully embrace this guy, and what a missed opportunity that was,” Michler says. “Personally, I don’t care where a player is from. If he or she can play, I want to see them, because I know how difficult it is to do what they do and make it look so effortless—it’s poetry in motion.”
SOURCE: St. Louis Mag
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